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Experts say Victoria Police is out of step as it likens the threat of right-wing extremism to its left-wing counterparts in its submission to the federal parliamentary inquiry on radicalism.

By Osman Faruqi.

Victoria Police and extremism

Police block anti-lockdown protesters from accessing Victoria’s Parliament House last November.
Credit: Sipa USA

As far-right groups in Australia adopt an increasingly aggressive posture and become more organised, Victoria Police has been criticised for drawing an equivalence between far-right extremism and the far left, departing from the stance taken by other security agencies in the country. Experts have warned that this position risks minimising the serious threat posed by white supremacists.

Since the March 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack, in which 51 people were killed in the New Zealand city, Australia’s national domestic security agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), has warned that extreme right-wing groups are better prepared, more sophisticated and more security conscious than at any other time in recent history.

In its submission to the recently established parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security (PJCIS) inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism, ASIO says it “remains concerned with the threat posed by small groups or lone actors inspired to conduct an attack. These threats are difficult to detect, and can emerge with little forewarning”.

The organisation has previously revealed that 40 per cent of its current counterterrorism case load relates to right-wing extremism. Its submission states that “left-wing extremism is not currently prominent in Australia”. A submission from the Australian Federal Police to the same inquiry has no mention of left-wing extremism.

However, in its own submission, Victoria Police equates the threat of far-left and far-right extremism a number of times. The language sets Victoria Police apart from its federal counterparts, and may point to a lack of understanding around the urgent and specific threat posed by the far right, as outlined by ASIO.

“It is also important to acknowledge that the threat of terrorism can come from multiple sources and be inspired by a range of ideological or political causes,” Victoria Police writes. “The emerging threat of right-wing forms of violent extremism (RWE) and its interplay with left-wing forms of violent extremism (LWE) demonstrate that the threat of extremist movements and individuals is highly dynamic.”

As an example of left-wing extremism, Victoria Police points to “protest movements” that it says might include “fringe elements… [who] may be inclined to engage in various forms of violence, including acts of terrorism”.

In its submission, Victoria Police does not offer any specific examples of left-wing violence. According to Jessie Smith, a lawyer and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge who researches extremism and counterterrorism law, the Victoria Police submission “stands in contrast” with those made by ASIO and the AFP.

“It specifically names left-wing extremism in Victoria, and frames it as inextricably linked to the far right,” she says. “Indeed, the left is framed as an accelerator of far-right violence.”

According to the Victoria Police submission, “The RWE threat does not exist in a vacuum and is directly influenced by a symbiotic relationship with the threat of left-wing extremism (LWE). In addition to violent conflict at organised RWE events and public demonstrations, Victorian-based LWE movements and individuals are mimicking overseas based LWE movements (such as ANTIFA) to justify the use of violence to promote civil unrest and target perceived enemy groups.”

Antifa refers to a decentralised political movement that aims to combat the far right and fascism, but has become an amorphous term used by security to refer to a range of left-wing groups and activists.

In an apparent reference to Black Lives Matter protesters, Victoria Police writes in its submission that “LWE groups and individuals have also been particularly vocal in calling for action and encouraging unlawful activity during the pandemic”.

“Their willingness to flout government restrictions for ‘the greater good’ has already been evident in Victoria, with protest activity occurring despite warnings that it represented a breach in emergency COVID restrictions and that participants would be fined.”

Smith tells The Saturday Paper that this “does not approach the definition of terrorism under Australian law, and it does not serve our national interest to compare these protests with far more extreme, dangerous and violent right-wing activity”.

She says the submission has parallels with rhetoric used in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“These comparisons echo President Trump’s line that there is somehow a moral equivalence between the far left and the far right,” Smith says.

“Ideological polarisation online does not mean that the far left and the far right are equal in terms of capability or violent intent in Australia. Dealing with far-right violence requires us to be clear-eyed as to the real and current risk posed by groups of this kind, and trust state and federal police to allocate their investigative, legal and policy resources accordingly.”

According to Dr Mario Peucker, whose team at Victoria University is conducting empirical research into far-right and radical-left movements, there is nothing to indicate that left-wing groups are planning or organising violence in Australia.

“Certain groups like Marxists, socialists, anarchists and anti-fascists might have radical politics, but there’s no hint that the far left are considering violence,” he says. “During the far-right protests in 2015, 2016, we saw signs of situational escalation, rallies and counter rallies, some violence, but as we’ve moved away from that period there’s been very little like that.”

The increased organisation of far-right groups was one of the catalysts behind the current PJCIS inquiry.

“Since January 2020, the threat posed by Extreme Right Wing individuals and groups has required increasing attention from the AFP and partners, including through investigations and disruptions by the Joint Counter Terrorism Teams,” the AFP says in its submission.

The Australian Federal Police noted that the “globalisation of these extremist groups through online connectivity continues to pose a significant challenge for law enforcement, and acts as a driver for radicalisation and expansion of ideologies to a broader range of individuals”.

Victoria, in particular, has seen increased organisation and aggression from the far right in recent months.

In January, up to 30 men involved in the far-right National Socialist Network (NSN) documented themselves gathering in the Grampians in western Victoria.

The group conducted training activities and chanted white supremacist and anti-Semitic slogans.

A smaller group of NSN members undertook a similar trip in northern Sydney last weekend.

This week, Thomas Sewell, a key member of the NSN, was charged with affray and unlawful assault after an incident at Nine’s Melbourne headquarters. Sewell was filming himself in the media organisation’s lobby, demanding to speak to journalists from A Current Affair, which was set to air a story on the NSN.

Sewell allegedly assaulted a security guard after he was asked to leave the building. The guard was also racially abused by another member of the NSN.

Both the Grampians incident and this week’s alleged assault have highlighted a shift in strategy from the NSN, one of the biggest and most organised far-right groups in Australia.

Mario Peucker said there is evidence that the NSN are becoming “more bold, and have a different strategy”.

A precursor group to the NSN, called Antipodean Resistance, held a similar training camp in the Grampians in 2017. According to Peucker though, the more recent trip was an escalation.

“There’s something happening there,” he told The Saturday Paper. “The Grampians trip was different from the last one. It was bigger, and it was a very different cohort.

“It wasn’t just young people, for example. It was reported that there were a lot more grown men. There were also people with swastika tattoos this time, which we didn’t see last time.

“And this time they were not hiding somewhere in the bushes taking photos of themselves like last time. [They] marched through Halls Gap in bright daylight.”

Peucker says the alleged assault at Nine, publicised on social media, has propelled Sewell’s notoriety. “The number of Sewell’s Telegram followers has gone up 30 per cent in just three days. He’s certainly made a name globally in parts of the far-right movement.”   

Peucker says it is clear there is little to fear from radical left-wing groups. But the threat posed by the far right should be taken seriously.

“The Christchurch attacks further intensified the far right’s focus on white supremacist ideology and the idea of the ‘Great Replacement’. That is now the core of Sewell’s ideology,” he said.

“During the pandemic I would not have said the far right is growing a lot, but over the past few months, especially since the Capitol insurrection in Washington, DC, we’ve seen an enormous increase.”

The Saturday Paper asked Victoria Police a number of questions about its submission, the resources it put into combating right-wing extension and whether it equated the threat from both left- and right-wing extremists.

“Victoria Police will not comment specifically on the ongoing activities of far-right groups, except to say that we closely monitor a range of groups to ensure there is no threat to public safety,” a spokesperson replied.

“Victoria Police also works closely with its state and federal partners and our Joint Counter Terrorism Team has undertaken a number of investigations covering extremism from a range of backgrounds irrespective of religious, political or ideological motivation.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 6, 2021 as "Extremist views".

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Osman Faruqi is a journalist and the editor of 7am, Schwartz Media’s daily news podcast.